That’s the title of a press release that is going out this week. I’ll have to wait until the news of the location, as well as the number and significance of the manuscripts, is broken before I can say too much more. But as many of you know, these discoveries were made by a team from the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (www.csntm.org). The team came back with over 18,000 high-resolution digital photographs, filling one terabyte of data. Altogether, 47 manuscripts were photographed (though many of them were previously known to western scholars). The equipment broke down, the air conditioning was shut down by the government every day, and the heat of the summer beat down on this team mercilessly. It took five weeks and two different teams (four took the first shift and three the second) to shoot all the manuscripts.
What I can tell beyond the above is that a few of the manuscripts seem to be fairly important, although only one or two can properly be called â€œearly.â€ (I take it that the title in the press release is descriptive rather than restrictive; that is, early could be applied to any New Testament manuscript since all such are handwritten documents and virtually all are prior to the invention of the moveable-type printing press.)
A class of graduate students at Dallas Seminary last semester worked on collating sample chapters in these manuscripts. Collation is, in principle, a transcription of the wording (even down to the letters) of a document. But a collation is different from a straight transcription in that a base text is collated against; all the differences from that base text are noted. The variants that are thus produced are the readings that do not agree with the base text. Otherwise, agreement with the base text is assumed. This method creates an apparatus that follows what is commonly called the subtractio princeps—that is, it creates only those readings that are not found in the base text. Since the base text is the Byzantine text (which basically stands behind the King James Bible), any differences from that base raise the eyebrows and suggest that such a reading may be early and important.
After spending what must have seemed to them like an eternity collating these manuscripts, the students finally were able to assess what the teams had photographed, or discover what they had discovered. To be sure, the library in which these manuscripts are housed had a record of their contents; they knew what they were, at least in broad strokes. We are extremely grateful for the library opening its doors to us, too! But what CSNTM provided were the specific details, as well as decent digital images. And what the press release will say is that at least four of these manuscripts are significant for telling us about the wording of the original text. What it won’t say is that we didn’t get a chance to look at all the manuscripts yet. There may be, therefore, many others that are significant as well.
I can also mention that Hitler had shown an interest in one or two of these manuscripts during WWII. Fascinating story there.